The Atlantic published an article that spurred a great round of discussion on the Internet over the past few days about motherhood and the creative life.
The original article by Lauren Sandler asks if the secret to being a successful writer is to limit the number of children one has. The article has drawn many comments, including authors Zadie Smith and Jane Smiley. Here is one of the literary responses on Melville House Books by Zeljka Marosevic.
Sandler’s article opens the idea that women writers would retain their peak effectiveness if they have only one child. She goes on to say more. Please read the article if you are interested. Marosevic’s response states that children are not a threat to a woman’s creativity and supports her points with some of the comments to the original article.
If you asked me,
Yes, having children does impact a woman’s creativity.
So does having a full-time job. So does having a marriage. So does having a life.
Creativity is born out of chaos.
It is a human response to longing.
It is fired by the passion we have to express our inner responses to this fascinating and complex world. We yearn to leave a mark, to discuss ideas larger than our back yards, we yearn to remember or simply to play.
It is vitally important to get to that expression.
Having or not having children is a choice most women get to make today. Women, in a historical perspective, only recently got to make this choice. But I think the discussion of children or no children, one or two or twelve, (as Ingrid Hill had and still managed to write Ursula Under, one the best books I have ever laid eyes on), is beside the point.
Creative work, good intellectually valuable work, is borne no matter what your life circumstances. It is up to you to make the choice to nurture that work. Many commenters on Sandler’s article suggest that the way our society values mothering, what services are available to a woman with children are forces that have the most impact on a woman’s creative work. A woman may or may not have a partner willing or able to support her creative work, she may struggle with time and budget and scheduling conflicts that no partner or day care center can completely ease. So, she adapts. She finds a way to work.
Here is a bit from an interview with author Ingrid Hill on Bookslut:
Hill had begun the writing process the only way she could: in her head.
“We had a huge, long table we got from the University of Michigan surplus, taken from an old library. It was 12 feet long, and every night we sat down to that table for dinner. I made dinner, everything. I baked bread twice a week, I made my own yogurt; it was Little House on the Prairie. And I wasn’t thinking about the celery I was chopping or the pajamas I was washing; I was writing stories in my head, and I was doing the writing and revisions in my head.”
Certainly we could ask the question, what would Ingrid Hill have written if she did not have 12 children? What would Emily Dickinson have written had she found her way out of her house and into a marriage with children? What would Anna Quindlen or Anne Lamott or Maya Angelou or any one who’s work has inspired you, what if they had more time? Fewer distractions? Maybe they would not have had the yearning to express that they have now. Maybe Barbara Kingsolver would have stayed in the jungles with Steve and never gotten to living a year of living Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that she wrote with her daughter.
The crux of this matter, for me, lies in what happens in your life that shutters you, silences you or tells you that your words, images, offerings are not important enough, not worth the time, money, space or effort. If motherhood makes you stumble, it also can make you stronger, just as any other struggle gifts us.
Motherhood affects you. Alters you. It changes you forever.
But you are still a human being with something to say, with work to do.
Therese, a commenter to the Sandler article suggests that mothering changes the way you work. I am interested in this place of being transformed by mothering. This is why I write, why I teach the Powder Keg Sessions: A Writing Workshop for Mothers and Others (next one meets on June 30 at 1pm) and it is why I run the blog series that fueled the live event and the publishing of An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice.
When I meet people who are considering whether to have children, I tell them it’s like eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The scales fall from your eyes, and suddenly you have this new magnificent wisdom about human existence. And then maybe it was something about the prolactin hormones nourishing my brain – I never was able to be so organized or disciplined as to get whole books down onto paper before my daughter was born. There was a year of mommy brain, where all I could think of was her, and then after that year, I started writing in a way I had never quite seemed capable of before.
In the stew of this discussion float some big chunks of ideas to savor.
Do you feel that your creative life is supported by your life choices?
Does taking time for your creative work feel like an indulgence?
What would do for you?
Can you begin to consider that, as Katherine Paterson wrote, “ the very persons who took away my time are the ones who have given me something to say”?
Is it possible to begin to look at the way you live your life as innately creative?
Are there spaces and places in your life where you could redirect your choices to provide for your own creative expression- to read, to day dream or to pick up a pen?
Whatever your place, children or no children, bringing forth your ideas and dreams is worth the time it takes to do that.
I am going to be with Jan Phillips this week at Women’s Voices for (a) Change. This conference at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY is a gathering of artists and activists looking to take our work higher, to celebrate the work of women who have gone before us and to circle, to listen and consider what is possible for our work. Jan, who inspires my creative work so much, has written a new book which I cannot wait to read.
I will post from Women’s Voices for (a) Change this weekend.